A Day in the Life of a Senior Manager at Amazon Creating the World's Worst Operations Meeting
I decided that we needed an ops meeting. Unfortunately, my attempt didn't go as planned.
Happy New Year, everyone! I wish you a fantastic 2024!
I had quite a few people reach out after my most recent article, which touched a bit on finances, and how to think about spending money. Funny how my off-topic posts frequently generate the most commentary.
Many emails I received touched on the idea of work/life balance (I wrote a lovely article about this). In particular, how do you draw the line between working harder, career growth, vacations, and so on. I’m going to quickly answer one particular question. “How do you think about unplugging for vacation to recharge?” This is particularly relevant as many people are on vacation over the holidays.
My answer — No email, no IM. Leave a phone number for emergencies. If an employee is away (regardless of how senior they are), there should be a maximum of 5% chance that they get called. It should be a *crazy unlucky* scenario because otherwise they shouldn’t be needed. Why are they not needed? Because you plan *far* ahead before a vacation. Are you the only one who knows X system? That’s bad, train someone immediately. Are you the only one who can approve big changes? That’s bad, train someone on your criteria, and delegate decision-making to them. As a senior leader, I always made a list of every single thing I could imagine I’d be needed for, and prepared weeks in advance. I documented exactly who should make what decisions, and trusted the team to continue operating. And then I unplugged. And I was almost never contacted.
This article is a story of operations meetings, how people interact, leadership, the challenges of cultural changes, and how simple things are sometimes more complex than expected.
This is a “Day in the Life” narrative article, similar to these articles:
Every time I write one of these stories, I get lovely responses back from people who enjoyed them. Considering they’re fun to write, I should probably do this more often. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this one as well!
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For some context, I mentioned “operations meeting” in my article title. There are many names for it, but in general, the idea is that most organizations that “operate” (run) software will regularly meet to review metrics. Things like “How many customers had errors in the last week compared to previous weeks?” And then you determine which of those metrics need improvements, what you’ll do about it, etc. At a strategic level, it’s your one major opportunity to discuss your system as is, instead of continually discussing how you’re changing it.
I was a Senior Manager at Amazon with many years of experience, and I had recently moved organizations. Amazon has an ownership culture which makes each organization feel like a small independent company (for better or for worse). In my time at Amazon, all of my previous organizations had been large, established groups where I was a medium-sized cog in a massive machine. These organizations had their processes in place before I joined, so I picked up their processes, and helped improve them over time.
In this case, I joined a much smaller organization to run their technology team. I was essentially the CTO of a well-funded startup. And it turns out that startups are different from established companies. Who knew?
Day 1 — A need is identified.
I had met some managers and engineers during my interview process to take the job, but my first one-on-ones were opportunities for me to get to know them personally.
There was a knock on my office door.
“Come in!” I yelled at the door. I’ve always thought that yelling at my office door like that feels a bit uncouth, but seriously, no one can hear me if I’m not loud.
Lakenya opened the door of my office, and slid into my guest chair. Lakenya was one of the development managers on my team.
We exchanged pleasantries. I had already explained my work history, so I filled up my talking time by chatting about photography. Then we got into the work part of the meeting.
Lakenya asked, “What did you want to change first? We’re excited to have someone so experienced on the team.”
That was unfortunate. I had hoped they would have low expectations. I’ll admit that I had never considered that flattering your boss might cause stress.
“Oh, I don’t want to change anything yet!” I said cheerfully. “This team was successful before I joined. I’m here to help us scale and grow, but first I have a lot to learn about our software, processes, etcetera.”
Lakenya nodded. “What would you like to know?”
“Well first,” I said, “I’d like to be invited to all the recurring meetings I should be attending. Things like our project review meeting, team meeting, and operations meeting.”
Lakenya looked a combination of uncomfortable and unsure of herself. I immediately realized I had assumed too much. And that probably made Lakenya feel bad.
“Well, we do have a tech team meeting, you should probably take that one over.” she said. “But we don’t have those other meetings.”
I wasn’t too stressed about the project review meeting, but an operations meeting? I felt like that was too important to not have one.
“No operations meeting?” I asked to double-check. Lakenya shook her head.
“No problem, I’ll get one scheduled!” I said.
I took a note to get that on the calendar as soon as I could.
After the meeting, I sent out an invitation to the managers and senior engineers on the team. I said I wanted to begin a regular meeting where we’d take a look at the operations of our systems. I asked those leaders to attend, and we could walk through the operational metrics of our system. I said we’d collectively work on building a proper agenda once we had a chance to talk through everything.
I underestimated the complexity of what I was about to try.